One of only a handful of films directed by Yasuzo Masumura on DVD in North America, Red Angel is a startling and intelligent drama/war film with a few other genres worming their way into the picture to keep things interesting. It's also so damn good that it makes one wish more of the director's filmography were available in English friendly DVD editions.
The film follows Nishi (Ayako Wakao of Zatoichi Vs. Yojimbo and Masumura's earlier Swastika), a very pretty young nurse who heads to the front of the war with China during the late thirties to work at an army hospital. No sooner is she set up there then she's raped by some of her patients. One of the rapists, Sakamoto, is sent back into active combat when she reports what happened to those in charge. Before his departure, Sakamoto makes sure that Nishi knows that her telling on him has effectively given him the death sentence.
Later on, Nishi receives a transfer to a different hospital where she's to work under Dr. Akabe (Shisuke Ashida of Kinji Fukasaku's The Fall Of Ako Castle), the man in charge. Her new position isn't easy as the maimed casualties are brought in faster than she and Akabe can get to them. Things come full circle for Nishi when a patient is brought into the hospital bleeding to death from a horrendous stomach wound. Akabe says no to a blood transfusion and shortly after Nishi realizes why she recognizes the dying man – he's the same Sakamoto who raped her previously. He apologizes and Nishi takes pity on him, telling Dr. Akabe that if he gives Sakamoto the treatment he needs then she will give herself to him that night. Akabe agrees and Sakamoto passes away on the operating table but Nishi keeps her end of the bargain and lies with him that night. The odd part is that Akabe doesn't do anything except lie there holding her, his morphine addiction (the only solace he has during these hard days) preventing him from doing much else.
Shortly after her encounter with Akabe that night she gets back to work where she meets an armless man, both of his limbs lost when his wounds required a double amputation. The army refuses to send him back to the general population for fear of ruining moral should he be seen and word get out that it was the war that took his arms, and so he grieves for the fact that he'll never see his wife again. Once more, Nishi takes pity on the man and she gives herself to him. When she's no longer comfortable doing this for him he loses all hope and kills himself, the circle of death around Nishi growing to a close. Eventually Nishi and Dr. Akabe are reassigned to a group of soldiers all suffering from the same disease. The relationship between the doctor and the nurse takes an odd twist when Nishi talks him into giving up the drugs that have cost him the use of his manhood and ruined his spirit but the return to past glory that Nishi had hoped she would help Akabe rediscover proves to be his very undoing.
Feel good movie of the year material this film most certainly is not, but it is a very powerful piece of cinema that'll at least get a few synapses firing and tug on your heart strings at the same time. Masumura does a fantastic job of pacing the film so that there's just enough suspense and drama in the picture to keep us wanting more but not so much that it cheapens the picture. The narrative does a great job of explaining all that we need to know about Nishi and letting us make up our own minds as to the rest, how she ties into the various lives she effects and if she is really all that she appears to be or possibly a metaphor for something else all together.
Though this is very much a serious film and not an exploitation piece at all, rest assured that the camera does not flinch from the harder subject matter that the picture deals with. Limbs and bodies pile up in droves painting the picture of War as Hell quite effectively and the love scenes in the film, while hardly trashy, don't leave you guessing as to what is actually happening.
Red Angel hits DVD in a nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is very nice indeed. It's got a nice level of fine detail, very little line shimmering at all, and no mpeg compression problems to report. The contrast levels on the black and white image are great, and the movie looks fantastic on this DVD. There's a little bit of natural looking film grain present for the duration, as should be expected, but there aren't any problems with print damage at all save for some really minor spots here and there, and the picture is clean and detailed from start to finish.
The movie is presented in its original Japanese language mono mix, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Dialogue comes through clearly and cleanly and without any hiss or distortion issues coming into play. Every once in a while there's some shrillness in the higher end of the mix but that's really the only minor complaint worth mentioning and if you're not listening for it, odds are pretty good you won't even pick up on it. Levels are balanced properly, sound effects come through nice and clear and with a fair bit of strength, and the background score for the film sounds quite nice.
There aren't a ton of supplements here but Fantoma has supplied the film's original theatrical trailer, a still gallery of production photos and text biographies for Yasuzo Masumura in addition to menus and a chapter selection screen. Inside the keepcase is an insert containing some liner notes from Earl Jackson, Jr. who teaches film studies at Korea University. His essay provides some historical significance to the film and puts it into cultural and historical context quite nicely. Credits for the film and the DVD are also here as is a listing of the chapter stops.
A dark, moving and very well made film, Red Angel should hopefully find the larger audience it deserves through this fine domestic release from Fantoma. More extras would have been a nice touch and a commentary would have been very welcome but as it stands the movie looks and sounds nice and this release comes highly recommended primarily on the strength of the film alone.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.